Teach For America’s biggest contribution to the broader fight for educational equity and excellence is bringing thousands of remarkable young leaders into this work. Rallying the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders will always be a strategic priority for us. Our sober assessment is that these are the toughest recruitment conditions we’ve faced in more than two decades. And they call on us all to reconsider and strengthen our efforts to attract the best and most diverse leaders our country has to offer.
The Role of Scale
I think it’s helpful to ground any reflection about recruitment by first looking at the role of scale in Teach For America’s story. Scale has been central to our mission: we’re helping to grow and strengthen a movement to match the magnitude of the problem of educational inequity.
From 2000 to 2013, our corps grew at an 18 percent compound annual rate in response to both rising demand for our leaders from principals and districts and growing interest from a generation of diverse leaders to channel their talents into schools in low-income communities. As we scaled we worked hard to become more diverse; today, half of our corps members identify as people of color and 1 in 3 are the first in their families to graduate from college.
Over 25 years, we’ve broken down barriers to do what most thought impossible: channel the energy and imagination of generations of leaders toward expanding opportunity for all. We’ve driven over half a million applications to our corps. Today, we’re a network of 50,000 corps members and alumni bound by an unwavering belief in the potential of all students and their right to an excellent education. Some 85 percent of us work full-time in education or with low-income communities, even though only 1 in 5 of us had plans for a career in education before encountering TFA.
Turning Point in Our Recruitment
At our recruitment peak in 2013, 57,000 people applied to TFA, yielding a corps of 5,800. In 2014, for the first time in more than a decade, our recruitment season took an abrupt dip at our final deadline.
Recruitment in 2015 saw further decline, with 44,000 applications yielding a corps of 4,100.
The downward trend in recruitment continued through this year. We closed our 2016 recruitment season with 37,000 applicants. While we won’t know the final corps size for several months, we do know it will be smaller than last year’s by several hundred corps members. This will impact our school partners and our regions, some of which will choose to make organizational changes to ensure our costs are appropriate for our scale.
These shortfalls matter. Corps members are good at their work: Study after study affirms that they advance student learning more than other new teachers; our school and district partners want to hire far more of them than our current recruitment effort is producing. At the same time, demand for the leadership of our alumni—from a wide range of agencies, districts, and organizations—has never been higher.
National Climate and Context
Anyone concerned with the future of our nation should be alarmed by the staggering decline in enrollment we’re seeing across the country in teacher preparation programs—both alternative and traditional routes. The challenges we’re seeing at TFA—an organization powering the nation’s largest, most diverse talent and leadership pipeline for schools in low-income communities—are emblematic of something bigger than the future of our organization.
Tackling educational inequity ranks below other issues that concern young Americans. Companies have become much better at marketing themselves to a socially conscious generation with rising college debt. College students set their career goals earlier and commit earlier to employers. And they’re increasingly unlikely to choose a single career for their lifetime at such a young age.
Additionally, the toxic debate surrounding education—and attacks on organizations that seek to bring more people to the field—is undeniably pushing future leaders away from considering education as a space where they can have real impact.
The stakes for this next generation of leaders to choose to take on educational inequity have never been greater—for our country’s economic strength, security, and future as a nation founded on the promise of opportunity for all.
Our Failure to Respond to Warning Signs
For our part at Teach For America, there were indicators of coming recruitment challenges that we should have paid closer attention to. We had built a strong, intentionally redundant national structure, which ensured programmatic consistency and continuous year-over-year improvement in the academic outcomes of students as we scaled. But eventually our size and complexity limited our ability to respond decisively to a rapidly changing external landscape.
The motivations of the people we were recruiting changed quickly, and so did how they communicate. We were slow to gain critical understanding of this next generation of young people and how best to connect with them about the multiple futures TFA can open in education leadership and beyond.
We also neglected to cultivate a strong community among corps members and alumni to help support our recruitment efforts at the scale needed to catalyze the broader movement. We saw corps satisfaction numbers decline toward the tail end of our growth. We heard corps members tell us that the demands of a changing landscape called for different supports. We heard alumni say they felt disconnected from TFA.
In all of this, we were simply too slow to respond, regroup, and chart a new course.
A New Chapter at TFA
Last year we launched a new strategy. It’s a departure from the five-year growth plans that characterized our last decade, and a reconceptualization of how we will drive impact in this next era. Six weeks ago I announced a major organizational restructure and reorientation that will position TFA to thrive as we pursue our new strategy.
As we rethink recruitment, we will continue to operate with integrity to our selection model. Our focus is less on the raw number of applications and more on recruiting applicants who meet the high bar for admission to TFA’s corps. The stakes are extremely high for us to admit corps members who will thrive in our model and have an immediate positive impact with children. We take that responsibility seriously, and we’re uncompromising about our standards.
We are changing how we recruit.
We’re rethinking how we communicate with prospects, and simplifying our application process. We’re doubling down on our recruiting investment by putting more resources toward appealing to prospects who will be competitive in our process.
We’re engaging college students as sophomores and juniors, instead of waiting until their senior year. Companies are shifting recruitment to ensure college students have internships and other opportunities to spend time experiencing what the job is like before they commit. We need to do the same.
Through all of this, we remain deeply committed to recruiting a corps of leaders that reflects the diversity of our nation and the coalition required to make lasting, systemic change.
Looking Forward With Clarity, Conviction and Optimism
I know it will take several years to rebound fully. I also see positive signs that we will turn the tide.
The number of junior applicants is up: We have driven more than 5,300 juniors to start applications to join the 2017 corps, which is a 47 percent increase over last year and a running start on next year’s recruitment campaign. After four years of steady decline, the satisfaction level of corps members has been climbing for two years. We’re seeing more and more regions foster thriving corps and alumni communities. In the last year many of our own corps members and alums have rallied their networks (including former students!) to consider the corps.
Last month, Andrew Gonzales and Shannon Montague both accepted our offer to join the 2016 corps. Andrew is a senior at Brown University who has worked as an intern in the White House, for the Children’s Defense Fund, and for the Contra Costa District Attorney in California. He grew up in Richmond, California, where he was taught by a TFA alum. Shannon grew up in Brecksville, Ohio, and will graduate in May from Notre Dame, where she is vice president of the Senior Class Council. This fall, Andrew will return home to the Bay Area and Shannon will move to Baltimore. Beginning in their classrooms, they will launch a lifetime of leadership and advocacy for educational excellence and equity.
We have thousands of remarkable people like Andrew and Shannon joining our growing leadership force this summer. And we feel a profound responsibility and urgency to bring more of them into this work.
I’ve been sole CEO of Teach For America for seven months now, and I’m engaged in a transparent look at all aspects of our operation. Our recruitment landscape is challenging and will take time to improve, but we’re an organization built to address complex challenges. I’m proud to be leading TFA alongside a world-class team where we stay centered on impact, learn from our setbacks and lead with our values. As an organization, we’re committed—like all of our incredible educators—to constant reflection and to showing up better than we were yesterday for our students.